Beautiful & Pointless
A Guide to Modern Poetry
David Orr
HarperCollins, $25.99, 224 pp.

For some years now David Orr has been a frequent commentator on poets and poetry for the New York Times Book Review. He is himself a poet, and this short, lively guidebook proposes to conduct the “general reader” about the landscape of contemporary poetry—what he refers to more than once as Poetryland. Orr inquires into what can be deemed “worthwhile” about spending time reading poetry rather than doing any one of a number of other things. Since, in our young century, poetry as an art form “currently occupies a position in the popular consciousness somewhere between lute playing and crewel embroidery,” we could use some signposts and tips about what it really means to read the stuff. This task Orr carries out in six brief chapters, each of them self-described as “loose, anecdotal, occasionally inappropriate, and decidedly candid.” In that informal spirit, and with playful wit, he invites readers to disagree with him—“You might be wrong of course, but that isn’t the point”—an invitation for which this reader was grateful.

Individual chapters bear titles such as “The Personal,” “The Political,” “Form,” “Ambition,” but shouldn’t be regarded as clearly fenced-off subjects since all the chapters are held together by Orr’s strong, companionable voice. That voice is interested not in laying down the law, but rather in arguing (often with himself) a case for the life to be found in contemporary verse. In his opening chapter, “The Personal,” he finds such life in...

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About the Author

William H. Pritchard is the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English at Amherst College. He is the author of Shelf Life: Literary Essays and Reviews (University of Massachusetts Press) among others.